by Matt Barkett

April 3, 2014

As a crisis PR guy, I’m often asked to define the worst kind of crisis or to recall the worst one I’ve ever seen. My response typically is that crises come in all sizes and have wide disparity in their impact. Big explosions, massive chemical spills, transportation accidents leaving many dead, well, those are pretty obvious. But at the same time, a stolen laptop can be a big deal too, depending on what’s on it and who has it now.

Inevitably, though, my answer is that crises that come with a vigil are the worst. A crisis where people are missing and possibly dead and no answers are immediately apparent  – those are the hardest for everyone involved, including the company officials most directly responsible for the operation where the crisis occurred.

We have worked several accidents that have had long vigils with families waiting for news – the Sago Mine and Upper Big Branch mine accidents in West Virginia most quickly come to mind. We all watched a different kind of vigil take place when BP’s Deep Horizon well spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for three months, all immediately visible simply with a click on the Internet to the website that showed the camera capturing the spill and counting the gallons dumping into the gulf. All of them were bad and very public, and equally exacted a devastating toll on their respective companies. But I never really anticipated the possibility that an air crash could have a similar situation. I mean, when a plane goes down, all we have to do is look at the radar and then go to a crash site, right?

Which brings me to Malaysia Airways flight 370. Most of the constant banter on television seems to focus on the obvious question – how the heck can you lose an airplane that big and have no real trace of it after three weeks of looking?

The air crash handbook is a pretty well established document at this point, with virtually every major air carrier having a detailed emergency response plan that most of them test annually, hoping they never have to use it. After an accident, a “go plane” team is mobilized, accommodations for families and media are secured at the crash site, an initial press conference is held featuring the airline’s CEO and then the NTSB takes over, leaving us all to watch as the investigation progresses, typically for at least a year. Headlines are huge initially, then quickly fade to the back pages until the results are announced.

But in this instance, they haven’t even found the darn plane yet, and with Anderson Cooper hosting “expert” roundtables speculating on the cause every night on CNN and groups of angry Chinese families marching with banners on Malaysia Airways headquarters in front of a voracious media crowd which loves to show every anguished cry, many air carriers have to wonder if their emergency response plan needs to be totally rewritten.

To be sure, the Malaysia Airways situation is an anomaly, occurring in a part of the world that may not be as laden with tracking devices as most regions, and it’s been painful watching its management team try to handle it. There’s simply no precedent here, and they’ve struggled in virtually every category, from informing families about developments to providing accurate information to media and getting neighboring countries to cooperate in a timely fashion.

It’s a fact that we’re not going to lose track of an aircraft over New Mexico, so maybe there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. But it’s certainly worth taking a minute to consider this new possibility as air carriers of all kinds continue to expand globally. We may never know what happened to Malaysia Airways flight 370 and the vigil will continue regardless, in one form or the other. In the end, the company that operated this flight will be forever stigmatized, perhaps in a way they never anticipated possible, no matter how many news conferences they hold, outreach they make to families nor how much effort is put into the search. That’s a high price to pay for an organization that had a pretty darn good safety record before this insanity happened.